William Empson

William Empson, who died in 1984, was one of the most important literary critics of the 20th century. His books include Seven Types of Ambiguity, Some Versions of Pastoral, The Structure of Complex Words and Milton’s God. His Complete Poems are available from Penguin. He wrote in the LRB on Ulysses, his fellow critics I.A. Richards and Frank Kermode, Elizabethan spirits, teaching in the Far East in the 1930s, and the speed of fairy flight in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The LRB has carried several pieces on Empson’s work by Frank Kermode, as well as essays by Christopher Ricks and Colin Burrow. John Henry Jones’s Diary gives a memorable account of life with the Empsons in Hampstead.

The Queen and I

William Empson and John Haffenden, 26 November 1987

On 27 October 1954 the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh visited the University of Sheffield in order to inaugurate its Jubilee Session. No other reigning sovereign had visited the principal university buildings since King Edward VII opened them in 1905. Six months before the Queen’s visit, the Vice-Chancellor, Professor J.M. Whittaker, put to his recently-appointed Professor of English...

2 October 1949. Yesterday we were busy with Jacob’s birthday till about five (or rather Hetta and Walter were and I was hanging about): then Kidd and his wife turned up and we all set out to look at the celebration of the new Government and capital. There was supposed to be a difficulty about getting sanluerhs, but we did and Hetta and I at once got separated from the others because our drivers went left by Coal Hill instead of right. Columns of soldiers were marching east and we didn’t see how to turn south through them towards Tien An Men. So we walked westwards to the pailou beside Pai Hai, getting rid of sanluerhs. The north gate was finely got up. I did not expect to be more than bored, but found myself extremely moved almost at once. You may believe that what is being celebrated will turn out a delusion, but history is full of gloomy afterthoughts. Here you have celebrated a victory of revolt against tyrants, supported by the countryside alone, practically with their bare hands, against a government drawing on the full terrors of modern equipment with medieval or fascist police methods into the bargain. If anything in history is impressive you are bound to feel that is. The troops looked very brown and sturdy, and had probably done some fighting (conceivably on the other side no doubt); some looked dolts, perhaps the majority, but none had an air of successful brutality, and the young with an air of simple goodness could regularly be picked up – the face that first struck me as so unlike Peiping when I crossed the lines to go to Tsing-Hua. They were singing, off and on, those extremely impressive marching songs. They were fully and elaborately equipped, some platoons with fixed bayonets, some carrying e.g. machine guns spread-eagled between four, who would be relieved occasionally by neighbours. I could not see if it had American lettering on, but the reflection that the equipment must all have been captured did seem to me enormously impressive. Only a few idlers were looking at them.

Moonlight Robbery: China 1938

William Empson, 5 October 1995

One of the ideas about China still often held by people in England is that China is full of bandits, and it seems worth offering a bit of out-of-date reportage on this topic; there is no moral except that the bandit situation had very intelligible causes and has been getting under control.

Magnificent Cuckolds

William Empson, 24 January 1991

Frank Budgen’s last pamphlet ‘Further Recollections of James Joyce’ (1955) carries a bit of personal reminiscence which looks as if it might be more important than most. He remembers that he had one day remarked to Joyce that he could never understand why Bloom, in Ulysses, lets his wife commit adultery with Boylan; but we gather that after this leading question he offered his own answer, hoping it would irritate the great man into a correction, which shows he understood interviewers’ technique. Joyce said: ‘You see an undercurrent of homosexuality in Bloom as well as his loneliness as a Jew who finds no warmth of fellowship either among Jews or Gentiles, and I think you are right. But there is another aspect of the matter you have missed.’ And he went on to claim that the only reason why his play Exiles wasn’t acted in Paris in 1921 was that Le Cocu Magnifique by Crommelynck somehow ‘took the wind out of the sails of Exiles. The jealousy motive is the same in kind in both cases. The only difference is that in my play the people act with a certain reserve, whereas in Crommelynck’s play the hero, to mention only one person, acts like a madman.’ Crommelynck’s is in the British Museum Library, and I would like to offer a report on it as it seems little known among readers of Joyce and strongly supports my previous opinion, which no other writer yet supports, about the fundamental topic of Ulysses.

Teaching English in the Far East

William Empson, 17 August 1989

I am afraid this may prove rather a gossipy Inaugural Lecture but I feel it is the main thing I have to offer on this occasion. I could talk, instead, about my theoretical books, which have been mainly about double meanings in literature, and the mechanics of how they have a literary effect: but I haven’t found that that has much to do with teaching literature, in my experience so far,...

The Terrifying Vrooom: Empsonising

Colin Burrow, 15 July 2021

Reading an Empson essay is like being taken for a drive by an eccentric uncle in a terrifyingly powerful old banger. There are disturbing stains on the upholstery and an alarming whiff of whisky in the...

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Replying in 1934 to a Japanese poet who had asked for advice about writing ‘modern’ poetry, William Empson recommended ‘verse with a variety of sorts of feeling in it...

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Empson has been dead these 16 years, and although his voice was often recorded it now seems difficult to describe it. John Haffenden says he had one voice for poetry and another for prose. Empson...

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Wild Bill

Stephen Greenblatt, 20 October 1994

It would be easy for a reader who was encountering Empson for the first time to wonder what on earth this critical performance was about and why these ragged relics – the second part of a...

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Cold Feet

Frank Kermode, 22 July 1993

William Empson maintained that there was a right and a wrong moment to bring theory into the business of intelligent reading, and that the professionals chose the wrong one, but he could not do...

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David Trotter, 4 February 1988

‘I thought I had best begin by expressing some old-buffer prejudices in general,’ Empson told the British Society of Aesthetics in 1961: ‘but now I will turn to English...

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What Marlowe would have wanted

Charles Nicholl, 26 November 1987

The best, perhaps, has survived, but a great deal of Elizabethan drama has not. The number of titles mentioned in contemporary documents – the account books of the impresario Philip...

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On a Chinese Mountain

Frank Kermode, 20 November 1986

The Royal Beasts contains works of Empson’s previously unpublished or published long ago and very obscurely. There is a short play, an unfinished novel, a ballet scenario and a batch of...

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It’s great to change your mind

Christopher Ricks, 7 February 1985

Of books darkened by being posthumous, this one of Empson’s, Using Biography, is among the most illuminatingly vital. Every page is alive with his incomparable mind, his great heart, and...

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